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A Severe Test (Solax, 1913)

A Severe Test screenshotA Severe Test (Solax, 1913)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Marian Swayne and Vinnie Burns

Daisy (Marian Swayne) and Frank (Vinnie Burns) have been married for a year. Daisy begins to notice that Frank doesn’t seem to be showing her the same degree of affection he did when they were newlyweds. To test his love, she fakes her own death. She writes to her friend Ella to explain her plan, and to Frank, she writes a teary suicide note, but she accidentally mixes up the letters and the envelopes — Frank get’s the explanation and Ella gets the suicide note.

Frank decides to play along. At the pier where Daisy met her supposed watery death, Frank is all smiles and flings her discarded coat and suitcase into the lake. Daisy — watching from the sidelines — is hurt and declares that she’ll never live with that “brute” again. But Frank isn’t finished: he has a wedding announcement printed for him and a fictional girl named Lucy Smith. It was only supposed to be a card, but it’s accidentally published in the newspaper. When Daisy reads it, her pain turns to fury. She looks up a real Lucy Smith in the phone book and sets off to “scratch her eyes out”.

Frank is also searching for Lucy, to apologize for the announcement. Frank and Daisy meet at the Smiths’ house, where they discover that Lucy is actually the fat, black cook (she’s a white person in blackface, and I’m fairly certain she’s also a man in drag). Laughs all around as Frank and Daisy reconcile.

The print of A Severe Test (1913) in our collection is perhaps the only one in existence. At least, no archive has a copy, I’m not personally aware of any in private hands besides our own, and, in the past 15 years, I’ve never seen another print turn up on the market. I reticent to label any film “lost” — in the past, you’ll notice I usually hedge my bets with “presumed lost” — but others aren’t so hopeful.

A Severe Test film clipAlison McMahan, one of the foremost scholars on Alice Guy, lists the film as “not extant” in her 2013 article on Women Film Pioneers Project. We’d held our print for nearly a decade by that point, and it had been readily available on video for two or three years. A simple search on Google or YouTube would have revealed it, or you could check the distributors listed on IMDb to see if it had been recently released. I don’t mean to call out McMahan specifically here; I just want to comment on this tunnel vision that pervades the work of most film historians — where if a film doesn’t exist in a major archive, then it doesn’t exist at all. Around 40 years ago, Anthony Slide said that 75% of the silent era was lost. Even he would later admit that this was a bit sensationalized — an off-the-cuff remark without any real data behind it but nevertheless a good sound bite — but damned if that comment didn’t have legs. It seems to be near gospel nowadays. Sometimes I’ve even heard it claimed 85% or 95% of pre-1930 cinema is lost. I take a more optimistic view. There’s a great deal more out there if you’re willing to take your academic blinders off to see it.

As I said, we’ve released Severe on video before (IMDb says it was back in 2011, but by my records, the DVD came out in 2010 — the downloadable may have been 2011), but that transfer is… let’s say it’s looking long in the tooth. It’s in need of a re-do anyway, amd since there’s been some interest in it lately for use in an upcoming Alice Guy documentary, there’s no better time than the present.

The print is physically in very good shape, but the picture is exceedingly dark. The levels can be adjusted easily enough, but brightening alone is a poor fix. When the shadows are too dark, brightening them doesn’t reveal more detail in the picture, it only brings out a noisy gray blob. What we need is an image with an extremely high dynamic range, where there’s enough information to work with even in the darkest areas. And we can do that by merging several scans under varying intensity lights, but oh boy, does it take time. Our film scanner can usually capture a frame in 15 to 30 seconds. To get the quality we need for a decent transfer of Severe, it took upwards of 2 minutes. Keep in mind, there are over 15,000 frames to scan.

For example, here’s a frame grab from the old transfer:

A Severe Test old transfer

 

The pier is probably rough wood, but as it is, it just looks like murky gray streaked with black. Daisy’s lower body vanishes into the darkness — where does her dress end and the pier begin? What’s going on in the distance, beyond the water?

And here’s the same frame in the new transfer:

A Severe Test new transfer

 

The most remarkable improvement is the pier. Now we can see each board and even begin to get an impression of the texture of the wood. There’s a clear boundary between Daisy’s dress and the board she’s sitting on, and now we can see that there’s a valise in the foreground. Across the water, there appears to be a wooded hill dotted with several houses. Overall, it’s still much darker than the original release would have been, but at least now the image is clear enough to distinguish everything that’s in it.

And now it comes to what I think of the film: it’s just awful. It doesn’t do enough with the swapped envelopes gimmick. There could have been a whole B-plot built around Ella believing Daisy to be dead to offset Frank’s scheme, but instead, she finds out the truth from Frank almost immediately and for the rest of the film they’re in cahoots for some reason. And the “joke” they play on Daisy is just too mean-spirited to be funny. The cinematography is pretty good, I’ll give it that, and I liked Marian Swayne’s performance well enough, but I did not enjoy watching this film at all.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon